THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Roger Titford takes the pulse of our readers again and finds they have cut down on football slightly, but are unhappy at their increasingly sedentary lifestyle

In WSC 187 we asked for readers’ responses to a ques­tionnaire we had first used way back in 1991, before the start of the Premier League and the all-seater era. How much had changed? Eighteen per cent of our respondents actually recall answering that questionnaire and another 37 per cent thought they might have done. So, although the two surveys were 11 years apart, we’re looking at a lot of the same people’s views on the same issues. Not that surprisingly, a lot of the answers were the same too.

This is particularly true of questions relating to how readers started to support their club, showing again the importance of fathers or other relatives taking children to their first game (59 per cent) and of the person who took you supporting the team that you turned out to follow – it happened that way for 64 per cent of readers. A good 75 per cent of readers had set­tled on their team for life by the age of 11.

However, some things certainly have changed over the past decade. One of the most striking shifts is in the number of matches readers watch that do not in­volve their own team. The percentage watching three or more “neutral” matches in a season has dropped from 67 per cent to 37 per cent. Casual match-going has been a spectacular casualty of the all-seater era, with much more planning now required to organise tickets for many matches, and more than a few grounds almost permanently sold out. And within our sample that decline has not been made up by increased attendance at their own club’s matches. This too has de­clined – slightly – as the profile of our respondents has aged.

Back in 1991, only 22 per cent watched from seats. Now the proportion has risen to 77 per cent, but many would still prefer to be standing on the terraces. The all-seaters may have won the arses, but not the hearts: even today 37 per cent would prefer standing, with 27 per cent preferring to sit and the rest hovering or crouching somewhere in between.

We also asked which elements of your club you identify with strongly and there are interesting shifts here (see Table 1). Those elements in notable de­cline are “current players”, “my part of the ground” and “style of play” – all understandable in the days of highly paid and overseas players, rebuilt or brand new grounds and tactical homogeneity. By contrast, there is more identification with past players (possibly some of the ones who were “current” when the survey was first done), “fans like me” and, most interest­ingly, “the board”. Thirteen per cent is still the lowest figure for any element, but it’s nonetheless a trebling – pe­r­haps driven by more competence in the boardroom or by greater fan involvement in board and financial issues.

In 1991, six per cent of respondents owned shares in their clubs. This, too, has almost trebled, to 17 per cent. Then 51 per cent said they were willing to give some formal assistance to their club, and it looks as though this generation has delivered. The proportion of readers becoming “involved” in this way has risen from 27 per cent to 48 per cent. But willingness to participate in the future has declined from 51 per cent to 32 per cent, while being “completely addicted” to your club has fallen from 42 per cent to 30 per cent.

There has been no change in readers’ identification with their national team, with 22 per cent remaining very committed. In both surveys, nearly 90 per cent said England was their national team. One shift, which presumably fits with the growing cult of St George, is that the proportion who would prefer to see a UK team has halved from 15 per cent to seven per cent.

In 1991, we picked out responses from four clubs to summarise their fans’ ambitions and fears over the next five years and their perception of the club’s at­titude towards them. Bristol Rovers and Bristol City were then both midtable in the old Second Division, Birmingham likewise in the Third Division, while Preston were struggling (successfully) against relegation to the Fourth. Table 2 shows the ambitions and fears of fans then and now. Overall, the ambitions have been realised more often than the fears.

Bristol City have not made the top division but they have gone all-seater and the attitude of the club to its fans does not seem to have moved on. In 2002, a stable place in the First Division is the realistic ambition and (another) bankruptcy the most frequent fear. Bristol Rovers have got their own ground in Bristol, though it took longer than five years. The ambition is to get back to the second tier but the new fear is non-League foot­ball. The relationship between clubs and fans is still good, but the number of replies we had from Rovers fans was in severe decline.

Preston have achieved their 1991 ambitions and the attitude towards fans has significantly improved, to the extent that one of the major fears now is a change in the boardroom personnel. It’s a sign of the times that a realistic ambition is now “a season in the Prem­iership” rather than a place in the Premiership.

At Birmingham, that is what has at last been achieved and consolidation is the realistic ambition, though some talk of Europe too. The idea that the club might go out of business or be forced to share a ground, as was feared in 1991, seems quite far-fetched now. The slow march towards a more supporter-friendly club there continues pace by pace.

With the aura of gloom surrounding football below the top level now, it will be interesting to look back in another decade to see whether the dreamers are still better pundits than the doom-merchants.

From WSC 191 January 2003. What was happening this month

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